Thursday, October 10, 2013
Interview by Lisa Sumner
Gregory Spatz is the author of a new story collection Half as Happy, published by Engine Books. Half as Happy is smart, spooky, surprising, and so good that the writing is almost invisible. The stories in Half as Happy don’t offer up easy epiphanies, but they do move into the space made when the characters’ lives get torn open in one way or another; the writing is precise, and eerily good. Spatz has published three novels (Inukshuk, Fiddler’s Dream, and No One But Us) and a previous short story collection, Wonderful Tricks. His stories have been published in The New Yorker, Glimmer Train, Shenandoah, Epoch, Kenyon Review, and New England Review. He has received a Michener Fellowship and an NEA Fellowship in Literature. Spatz attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and teaches writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, Washington. And if all that isn’t enough, Spatz plays the fiddle in the bluegrass band John Reischman and the Jaybirds, and fiddle and mandolin in Mighty Squirrel. Music and musical instruments figure in many of the stories in Half as Happy. I was curious about how Spatz’s role as a musician influenced his writing….and how he balanced his writing and music with a teaching career.
Lisa Sumner: Short stories, novels, teaching, music…how do you manage it all? Do you sleep?
Gregory Spatz: I probably sleep a lot less than I should! The short answer is, I have a very supportive wife and family and I try very hard not to waste time. I fail regularly, of course, but…I don’t watch network television ever, and I try not to get too discouraged or impatient when my teaching schedule temporarily consumes all of my free time, or when being on the road with the band makes it difficult to keep up with writing or school work, or when writing for hours at a time makes me get out of practice on the violin. I try to be calm and realistic and to reassure myself that there will be time to catch up later on whatever’s slipping today. There’s always summer and sabbatical leave...long weekends. I go slowly and I’m very persistent and stubborn. I used to think that someday I’d have to grow up and make some hard choices—play music or write. Write or teach. I think it’s safe to say that at this point I’m probably too old to grow up, so I’ll have to keep writing, teaching and playing because I love each in its own way and together they probably create the balance in my life that enables me to get anything done at all. Yes, I sometimes wonder if I’d be a better writer if I didn’t also gig all the time, or if I’d be a better player if I didn’t spend so many hours writing. But just as often I wonder if I’d play music at all if I didn’t write, or if I’d write a word if I didn’t play music because the two things have this integrated, symbiotic relationship at the center of my life. But teaching...I know for sure that if I didn’t teach I’d be homeless on the street, so I don’t wonder about that so much.
LS: How does being a musician inform your writing?
LS: Narrative point-of-view is just beautifully handled in your stories. What guides your decision-making about who tells your stories?
GS: I spend a lot of time thinking about point-of-view, when I’m reading or thinking about fiction. In fact, I teach a class every few years where we do nothing but examine point-of-view and the many different ways an author can choose to approach his/her work, breaking down the familiar categories of first, third, second, plural first etc., into further and further sub-categories, some based on the form of address or occasion for story-telling (interior monologue vs. dramatic monologue vs. letter/diary narration), others based around the amount of irony in the narrator’s tone or stance (i.e. how much more fully is the reader invited to understand the narrator’s situation than he/she understands it him/herself...how much distance does the narrator have from the story events, and how do we know any of this?). My hope is that by focusing so intently on this one aspect of craft, beginning writers feel stretched and challenged, encouraged to take risks, and that later they’ll have this handy tool for revising and critiquing their work and understanding how to take it further.
LS: But isn’t there some risk that this kind of over-focus can become a little distracting...isn’t making too much of point-of-view, in isolation from other aspects of craft, a little misleading?
GS: Definitely. I try to remind my students of that— point-of-view decisions have zero primacy and should rarely come first. They shouldn’t be thought of separately from all the other things an author thinks about as he/she begins work on a new story. I mean, if you choose to go that way—if you give yourself a formal challenge by taking on some viewpoint technique you’ve never used before, just because you want to try it out—of course, that’s great. But generally, in my own stories anyway, that’s not how it works. I’ll think about characters first—who’s in the story, whose story is it and who’s likely to be the best/most interesting person to tell it—and then more or less simultaneously, what’s happening in the story? Where is the main tension? What’s the main trouble, what are the visual images I’m cuing from, where’s the emotional core, what’s the idea/theme I’m teasing out? By thinking about these things I’ll arrive at a starting point and a tone for telling the story. For me, this is possibly the most important thing for a story: beginning in the right place and with the right tone—finding the portal into the action at exactly the moment where enough is revealed and enough remains mysterious about the story’s subject and characters so that the reader is both grounded and piqued (or puzzled or worried). Viewpoint arises almost automatically out of those other considerations: who’s telling the story, where does it begin and what is the teller’s relationship to the main story action. If I’ve got those aspects of the story in focus, the point-of-view strategy will follow naturally and organically enough. So as obsessive as I am about tracking point-of-view as I read and think about (and teach) fiction, once I get to work on a new story, all that thinking goes away. I just focus on the characters and what’s happening in the story, and let the point-of-view choices come automatically from that.
LS: One of my favorite stories in Half as Happy is “The Bowmaker’s Cats.” It’s an intriguing story because I had never even thought about bowmaking; and then you use an unusual first-person plural narrator. Can you talk about this choice?
LS: I can’t pick just one favorite story from Half as Happy, but “String,” which closes the collection, is powerful and one of my favorites. How did you arrive at the shifting narrative point-of-view for this story, which begins with two cousins playing a prank gone horrendously wrong?
GS: I had that opening scene in mind for a very long time. I wanted to write about the highway prank the two brothers/cousins play—it was one of those ideas that, when I first encountered it (I think I must have read or heard about it somewhere; I played my share of pranks as a kid, but never anything this dramatic or involved!) it was so familiar, I felt almost like I’d already written the story. So for years, I had it in mind to write that scene with the prank. And since it’s a prank that requires at least two people working in tandem, and with a kind of one-ness of purpose, once I finally got underway with writing it, the plural first seemed like a natural enough choice. I wanted them to be good kids with a weird past...driven by boredom, as kids who do these things so often are. So I wrote that scene and then I let the story sit for a long time. I thought about it and looked at it for clues about how to proceed, and eventually I realized that the story’s secret was in the string itself. I needed to keep “stringing” together story sections which followed naturally out of the brothers’ initial prank—to show how that one initial action grows outward into other peoples’ lives. Any kid who’s ever played a prank (unless that kid is a sociopath) can tell you that a willful ignorance to (and disregard for) the real impact of that prank upon other people is a temporary blindness essential to going through with the prank itself. You play the prank in order to learn more about how your actions impact others and to test your very limited effect on the world around you. The results can be startling and disillusioning. So I wanted to let the story learn, as the kids learn, how that blindness lifts, by giving the people affected by the prank their own fully realized sections and their own stories to tell. And then to keep the story visually unified I gave each section its own pieces of string/rope/cord, all serving different purposes from beginning to end.
LS: Your stories are firmly realistic, yet there are moments in the stories when you seem to approach a more surrealist or magic realist style...can you talk about this?
GS: I think most of my work has at least one foot solidly in the style of the psychological realists because that’s where I began as a writer and a reader. The books and authors that first inspired me, moved me and made me feel like I had something to say, all center strongly around tracking the emotional inner-lives and psychological conditions of their main characters—shaping stories out of real-seeming events for those characters, and putting names/definitions to feelings and experiences (many of which had eluded me until I saw them articulated) along the way. I’m thinking particularly of work by Jane Smiley, James Agee, Alice Munro, James Joyce, Richard Ford, William Maxwell, Andre Dubus, David Huddle and my teacher Thomas Williams. But then, as time passed, my tastes and interests broadened. Some of this had to do with responding to students of mine who had a real gift for magic and over-the-top humor in their own work—needing to find good models for them in their work, and wanting to incorporate books/authors that would inspire those students and keep them engaged.
LS: Isn’t it kind of an unspoken given of MFA and undergrad workshop cultures, and for how-to writing-craft manuals as well, that most of the “rules,” tips and advice you’ll come across for “good” writing are actually rules, tips and advice for writing good fictional realism?
LS: Are you working on another collection? Do you work on stories individually, or do you usually have a vision of a larger body of work?
GS: I’ve always worked on stories individually without any real vision for an overarching unity or a larger body of work. I would love someday to be able do that—write stories deliberately constructed to connect with each other, contain echoes and create a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. Some of my all-time favorite books do exactly that—Haurki Murakami’s After the Quake, Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago, James Joyce’s Dubliners, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. For me, most of the time, much as I may love characters from one story or another and feel convinced, as I wrap up working on that story that there must be more stories possible featuring those same characters, every time I’ve tried...it just doesn’t happen. Somehow, when I finish with a story I seem to finish with all dramatic possibilities for the people in it. They may go on to have rich and interesting lives in some parallel universe, but not in any stories of mine. I don’t know why this is. Maybe I just need to try a harder and be more patient. Maybe this should be my next project!
Lisa Sumner is a teacher and writer living in coastal South Carolina. She is a voracious reader and writes about books at her blog Bibliophiliac.